Unmarried Partners Act – New Rights for the Unwed

Peter Tatchell says gay marriage and registered partnerships offer false hope. An Unmarried Partners Act, giving automatic legal rights to all unwed couples, –gay and straight– would be far more beneficial.

Much recent debate about the legal recognition of same-sex relationships has been dominated by Dutch proposals to permit gay civil marriage, and by the courtroom battle to overturn the ban on homosexual weddings in Hawaii.

Previously, the focus was on registered partnership laws, as enacted by Denmark, Greenland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. Granting lesbian and gay couples nearly all the rights enjoyed by married heterosexuals, registered partnerships are a form of marriage in all but name and ritual.

OutRage! opposes the ban on gay marriage because it is a form of homophobic discrimination. We support the right of same-sex couples to get married if they wish. But we don’t see marriage as some wonderful ideal, as straights claim. We certainly do not believe that queers should copy a fundamentally flawed heterosexual institution.

The new movement for gay marriage is curiously out of step with history. The number of straights getting married in the UK is the lowest in 70 years. Almost half of all weddings end in divorce. Marriage isn’t working. Even many heterosexuals realise the drawbacks. The most serious campaigners for marriage are now conservative gays and religious fundamentalists.

While same-sex love and commitment is laudable, wanting to be part of a dubious straight institution is not. Marriage was devised to ensure the sexual control of women by men, and to regulate the conception and rearing of children. Tailor-made for heteros, it’s irrelevant to gay people. Gayness frees us from the rules and rites of heterosexuality. Having enjoyed the greater lifestyle choices and sexual freedom that go with being gay, we’d be crazy to don the straitjacket of wedlock.

Registered partnerships are no better. They’re basically a gay version of heterosexual marriage, and benefit only a tiny minority of lesbian and gay people. Fewer than one in ten Danish same-sex couples have registered their partnership since the law was changed in 1989. Over 90% of Denmark’s gay lovers reject the idea of mimicking straight nuptials, and are therefore denied the rights that go with registration.

Legalising registered partnerships in Britain would probably result in a similar low take-up rate. While the majority of homosexual couples want legal rights, most do not want to go through an official state ceremony that burdens them with bureaucratic obligations. A system of registered partnerships would continue to leave the bulk of gay relationships without legal rights. This is the Achilles heel of registered partnership laws: they help few and do nothing for many.

Far more useful to most lesbian and gay couples would be a totally new legal framework in the form of an Unmarried Partners Act which would give automatic legal rights to all unwed lovers, gay and straight. These rights could include:

  • acknowledgement as next-of-kin in emergencies like accident or arrest;
  • joint guardianship of any children;
  • life-insurance payouts and inheritance of property on the death of a partner;
  • and entitlement to company benefits that extend to employees’ spouses, such as pensions and health-care cover.

It is these practical rights –not marriage– that most lesbian and gay partners want. Making such rights available as a matter of course, without having to endure a state-approved ceremony to get them, would help vastly more same-sex lovers than would gay marriage or registered partnerships.

One great virtue of an Unmarried Partners Act is its flexibility. The rights are automatic: but they have to be claimed. This ‘opt-in’ system allows partners to ‘pic-n-mix’. They can claim all, some, or none of the rights, depending on their needs. In contrast, couples in gay marriages and registered partnerships get lumbered with a full set of rights (and duties), whether they want them or not.

Under an Unmarried Partners Act, couples in a relationship of at least 12 months’ standing would be entitled to claim partnership rights: the one-year qualifying period being advisable to prevent short-term, opportunistic lovers from claiming their partner’s property. Proof of eligibility would be a simple Letter of Partnership, signed by the couple and a person of professional standing, (such as a doctor or lawyer), confirming that they had been partners for a year or more. This Letter of Partnership could be revoked at any time by either partner by signing a Letter of Annulment witnessed by a professional.

In the event of one partner becoming mentally incapacitated or dying without having signed a Letter of Partnership, the other partner could still make a claim. However, to prevent people claiming to be partners when they are not, the relationship would have to be confirmed by two professionals and be supported by documentary evidence.

There may be some people who, for whatever reason, do not want their lover to claim partnership rights, such as inheritance. They would be able to ‘opt out’ of any (or all) of the rights, by specifying this in a will or affidavit which would have legal force.

This Unmarried Partners Act is a modern, democratic form of partnership recognition: simple, egalitarian, and flexible. Ensuring legal rights for all unwed couples, gay and straight, such legislation may not be as ‘respectable’ as gay marriage or registered partnerships: but it would be infinitely more beneficial.